My grandfather made it, barely, to 100 this month and then said, like the Raven, "Nevermore," or, if that literary bird were Jewish, "enough, already," and went not all that gently into that good night.
It's ironic that Sicko came out on DVD as my grandfather spent his last days in hospice care, and that movie certainly occurred to me several times as I visited him in a Florida hospital. (As did that state's right to die controversies, but never mind that.) The people attending to him were mostly amazing, bless them all, but I have a few thoughts about the medicare system which only pays for a limited run at hospice, which I'll keep private.
My grandfather was in his right mind right up to the end and also in such good physical shape for a man his age (a modern day Thoreau, he walked miles every day of his life). And this was a man who, through good fortune and good investments, had money to pay for his care at the end. Too many people in this country do not have even that. Never mind all that, though; things can snowball downhill quickly and so they did. But we each had the amazing gift not only of all those years, but to have the time speak to him, say goodbye to him, helpless but heartfull.
Empathetic people can have a particularly hard time dealing with the imminent death of a loved one, because we transfer ourselves into their situation. Our grief becomes not only grief for them but for ourselves, for our own future. The fear of the unknown that can strike someone who is blessed and cursed with a sound mind - even, as with my grandfather, miraculously, at the age of 99 - making it harder to see them grappling with the end. And the blessing of being a person who truly loved life makes it harder for them to let go.
No movie can capture the experience, even as many have tried. How can you? Scenes of death and dying inevitably come off maudlin or off-putting (though several incredibly moving scenes came to mind this past week, including Bruce Davison telling his AIDS-stricken partner to "let go, let go" in Longtime Companion)
And there's no way I can write about it here, either, and do it justice. You go through it, and then you know.
In times of mourning, grief, everyone finds comfort in their own small ways. For me, besides family, besides reminiscing, I turn, of course, to movies. The other night I popped Woody Allen's Love and Death in the player. That one fit the mood - just the right amount of black humor needed to deal with the blackest, bleakest, of situations. When his time finally comes for him, Woody's character takes it all in exasperated stride. "The important thing is not to bitter. If it turns out there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. The worst you can say about Him is that basically He's an underachiever. The important thing is not to think of death as an end, but rather as a very effective way of cutting down on your expenses."
In Florida, I had too much time to think, about things like, maybe having kids isn't such a bad idea. The thought of dying alone can make you reconsider your anti-kids/"the world is too overpopulated as it is" stance.
Giving comfort to the dying also means reassuring them that it's okay, as in Companion, to let go, that everyone loves them, will miss them, but will manage.
When I go, if it's going to be a long drawn out affair as it was for my grandfather, I think I'd rather do it at home - if I can afford the care, that is. I may not even be able to afford hospice in a hospital; even as warm as the people who work there are, it's a cold place to be and a cold place to die.
And I wondered, what did people do in hospitals before there was TV? Walking through the halls of the place I saw every room had the television on, families gathered there to comfort their loved ones sitting silently watching TV. We certainly weren't above that either; we watched Animal Planet shows with my only partially conscious grandfather, remembering how much he loved animals. (Ironically, in a way, as he worked for years and years in the fur industry and his knowledge of various mammals often invariably lead to a discourse on the pros and cons of each animal's pelt for coats. But he did appreciate them.) We also had the financial news on, and then the regular news, images of the president flickering on the screen, and I could see this agitated him more than anything so I changed the channel.
How does one honor the dead and dying, especially a person who lived through as many decades (ten!) as my grandfather did? We can remember all they did for us, look through photographs, make fumbling attempts at writing about it (as I am), keep their voice alive in your head as long as possible... One of the last conversations I had with my grandfather was to thank him for the incredible number of movies he took with his 16mm and super 8 cameras, a priceless collection of family documents (and some with historical value, too). These are a blessing many times over, and we'll take the best of them, put on DVD and eventually I hope to edit into a shorter collage.
Can't do his life justice, and the way he went out certainly didn't, but we were blessed with an amazing 99 and 10/12s years of healthy life, and he clearly appreciated every minute of it.
Mazel tov, Grandpa.
"Are you scared of dying?"
"Scared is the wrong word... I'm frightened of it."
"Interesting distinction." -- Love and Death